New book: Tattoos in Japanese Prints

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston holds the largest collection of Japanese prints outside of Japan and parts of it have been published in various books. In a new book, curator Sarah Thompson has brought together 48 tattoo prints from the museum collection, all reproduced full page in full color and accompanied by informative descriptions.

Tattoos in Japanese Prints opens with a concise introduction to the history of tattooing in Japan and also touches upon the history and technique of Japanese woodblock prints. Naturally there is lots of attention for the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) as his prints of Chinese rebel warriors were said to have had a great impact on the development of the pictorial full body tattoo in 19th century Japan.  In 1827 Kuniyoshi produced portraits of heroes of the Chinese novel Stories from the Water Margin (Ch. Shui Hu Zhuan and Jap. Suikoden) and these were his breakthrough as Ukiyo-e artist.
In this novel about a band of rebels fighting corrupt government officials and helping the poor, a number of the heroes were tattooed and Kuniyoshi depicted them with colorful full body tattoos in his prints (see also my publication Of Brigands and Bravery). Today one can find these prints tattooed on mens’ backs, exactly matching Kuniyoshi’s designs of almost 200 years ago. In the days of Kuniyoshi mostly palanquin bearers, construction workers and firemen were tattooed.

Apart from the Suikoden prints by Kuniyoshi, the book includes many tattoo prints by other artists such as Kunisada, Kunichika and Yoshitoshi and other artists from the Utagawa school. An interesting example is the 1861 portrait of a kabuki actor by Kunisada, who literally copies Kuniyoshi’s 1827 design of the hero Gyoja Busho on the back of this actor.


Tattoos in Japanese Prints
is not a big comprehensive overview of tattooing in Japan and tattoo prints, but it certainly provides a rich and welcome introduction to the subject. The many close-up images in the book bring out the tattoo designs in great detail for the reader.

Sarah Thompson, Tattoos in Japanese Prints, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2017. 152 pages, full color illustrations. ISBN 9780878468461.